Maybe it’s because of my background in psychology, where the understanding of relationships is so important, but when I think of design I think that it, too, is about good relationships. What makes good design is the creation of a relationship; creating a whole from all kinds of different parts. The difference between clutter and beauty can be a fine line, but clutter feels like a bunch of things haphazardly thrown into a room taking up space. Create a relationship between these items and you might just have a great design.

What makes for relationships in design?

  • Color: When you repeat color throughout a space it creates a relationship and a coherent design. Additionally, if you want to use several colors in a room, it helps to have them all together in one element, like in a rug, piece of artwork or a fabric. You can also place them together in one place; a brown sofa with pillows of blue and orange creates the color story. In the pictures below you can see how the addition of color and an area rug pulled the room together and made it feel coherent. The clay color on the walls was repeated as an accent color in the rug and artwork. The blue in the rug is also found in the rug, a lamp, the artwork and a chair. And the area rug also helps to define the seating area.

Living room collage

  • Repetition: At stated above, repeating color creates a relationship. So does repeating shapes or patterns, items, motifs or elements. While you may use many colors of paint throughout your home, repeating the same white painted molding, for example, makes the home feel coherent. In the pictures below the area above the built-in was nondescript and did not add to the design. After, with the addition of some items repeating color and shape, the area at the top of the built-in becomes a focal point. We changed the lamp and it repeats the shape of the basket and the ottoman in the room. Small changes can make a big impact.

Vignette collage

  • Theme: When I say theme, you might cringe and say, but I don’t want my room to scream “circus.” A theme can be expressed subtly through the use of color and a few chosen items which speak to the theme. For example, if you want to bring the outside in, use the colors found in nature and include some plants. You can also do something unexpected such as using a ceramic lighthouse and making it into a lamp for a room with a beach feel. The room illustrated below clearly gives you a feeling of the great outdoors.


  • “Vignette” or Story: If you love old books, stack them up with a pair of old reading glasses on them or place them in a bookcase next to a comfy reading chair with appropriate lighting, making the meaning of the space clear. Use an area rug to define your seating area in a larger room, as we did in the living room above. In the pictures below we see how an empty area next to the kitchen served no purpose. The addition of a bookcase for cookbooks, a baker’s table with a marble top, a hook for some aprons and lighting turned this area into a wonderful baking center.

Baking center collage

  • Group like items: Instead of spreading that collection of vases around the room, where they may look haphazard or random, or have no impact, place them all together and you make a statement. In the picture above the homeowner’s teapots are on display on the floating shelves in the baking center.

Don’t think that creating a relationship means you can’t mix things up. You can use those antique pieces you love and mix them into your modern space. Just think about how they relate (color, size, shape etc.) and you can find a way to make it work. And don’t forget that throwing something unexpected into the room can keep it feeling lively and fresh. Just don’t go too far or it will feel jarring and out-of-place. That balance between harmony and spice keeps all of our relationships alive and interesting, inside and outside of the design world!

Remember, have fun and if you love it you can find a way to incorporate it!